When Mary Beth Bussen and Sarah Kelley – co-owners of Union Studio on Tower Grove Avenue in St. Louis – received an out-of-the-blue phone call in October 2019 from a fellow small-business owner inquiring if the pair would like to expand to an open storefront in Webster Groves, the instinct was to answer “no.” On reflection, however, they reevaluated the opportunity and recognized its potential. After a few slight hiccups, à la the novel coronavirus, Union Studio’s second location along the stretch of on-trend retail businesses on Big Bend Boulevard opened last October.
“It was an opportunity to be a part of the small businesses we respect and are happy to be neighbors with, to join a community that has historically been very supportive of handmade work,” Bussen says, “to be part of another neighborhood that is similarly walkable and vibrant, and to reach people whom we might not have otherwise in Tower Grove.”
The flagship location opened almost seven years ago, and the new Webster Groves store follows a similar blueprint of selling a thoughtful, curated collection of housewares, décor, skin care, pantry items, accessories, jewelry and fine art, all handmade, from more than 120 metro area artists and makers. With a mission to connect area residents with local makers’ high-quality work, the second location allowed Bussen and Kelley to physically expand that concept via increased, larger wall space – but it was a fundamental and foundational endeavor, as well.
“Our decision to expand was weighed equally knowing we could introduce our artists to more people; we could widen and spread the conversation about what handmade work looks like and what your community looks like with thriving creative people in it,” Kelley says.
And the long, 20-foot walls to broaden the boutique’s collection of fine art were only part of the architectural appeal. “We joke around here that we received this beautiful space and really just needed to not mess it up,” Bussen says. Tall front windows brighten the shop’s built-in features – original golden tin ceilings and wooden floors that were refurbished by the current landlords. Previous occupants have included Krueger Pottery Supply most recently, as well as The March Hare plant and antique shop in the ’70s and a Ben Franklin arts-and-crafts store in the ’50s.
On those coveted walls hang fine art originals and prints handpicked by Bussen and Kelley that range from an approachable $35 up to $1,650, in a variety of styles and media – all local.
“We have so many wonderful galleries in St. Louis, and we by no means pretend to be a gallery, but I think what’s special about our spaces is, people can envision what the art might look like in their home,” Kelley says.
One addition in Webster Groves is a large shelving unit used to display the wares that have made the flagship location so beloved. Most products are the same between both shops, including two of Kelley’s favorite makers. First, La’Crassia Wilderness’s Butter Love by L.C. skin care and bath products are perennial bestsellers. “I feel like her products have become more popular in the pandemic,” Kelley says. “It’s just such a wonderful form of self-care to have your skin feel good – it smells good and it doesn’t have any chemicals in it.”
And the same goes for Al Westcott’s ceramic housewares, another recommendation. In fact, Westcott doesn’t have a website or any other way to get in touch with him, and Union Studio is the only retailer selling his work. “Although the work is pretty minimalist, it just has so much character to it and feels good when you hold it in your hand,” Kelley says.
When reflecting on why the duo has managed to develop such a loyal, passionate following of customers, artists, small-business owners and the neighborhood community – so much so that they were able to expand and thrive in a pandemic – Bussen and Kelley agree that authenticity plays a central role.
“Our choices come from what resonates best for us,” Kelley says. “Authentic feels silly and overused, but I feel the shops are reflections of us, our character and how we make decisions.”
“It is authentically a reflection of us because it couldn’t be the reflection of anyone else,” Bussen adds. “The space is completely shaped by the customers who come in and have conversations and share the items they buy with other people, with the artists who make the work and engage in dialogue with us about their personal creative expression – all of those things make this place. It could not exist in another way.”
Union Studio, 8137 Big Bend Blvd., Webster Groves; 314-279-1446, stlunionstudio.com